“Dream vacation,” “trip of a lifetime,” “bucket-list destination”: these are the most common (and certainly apt) associations when one thinks of the Maldives. In fact, chances are high that the screensaver on your computer is an image of this unrivaled, awe-inspiring paradise. The group of 1,200 islands (200 inhabited) just six degrees north of the equator in the Indian Ocean is unarguably one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Thanks to its remote location, the waters are transparent, the skies are clear, the hot-white sand is untainted, and the sunsets are stunning. The upscale island resorts that make a jaunt worthwhile are destinations unto themselves, rooted in place with thoughtful amenities, tireless service, and impeccable design. Simply put, the Maldives is extraordinary.
That said, it’s not the easiest place to get to (approximately 18-20 hours from New York City), but that’s part of the exotic charm. The islands only receive about 800,000 travelers a year (ten percent are Americans), so it’s pleasantly uncrowded.
Minding the far-flung location, a trip here comes with a hefty price tag. Supplies are expensive to ship here, resulting in steep prices for meals, spirits, and other necessities. Rates for a standard room can start at $1,500 a night during high season, but it may be the most memorable standard room you’ll have ever stayed in. It’s no surprise a one-week trip can cost upwards of $10,000, and the types of visitors here (celebrities, wealthy families, affluent honeymooners) don’t bat an eye at their final bill.
The Maldives continue to grow as a destination, and some gay couples are also choosing to come here to enjoy the incredible natural beauty and luxurious resorts.
It is important to know, however, that the Maldives is under Sharia Law. This anti-gay Islamic practice is contained on the main island of Malé, the capital city, and various surrounding, non-resort islands where there’s no reason any travelers (gay or straight) should spend time because there is virtually no tourism infrastructure or notable sights and attractions (once travelers land at Malé airport, they are picked up by the resort and transferred by boat or inter-island plane).
Sharia Law publicly advocates against the LGBT community, but there has never once been an anti-gay incident reported by tourists on the resort islands. Most front-of-house employees at the resorts are multicultural, arriving from Europe, Asia, the UK, and the USA, and are trained, along with the entire staff, to be sensitive to all types of guests: there is no prejudice. Furthermore, for a local Maldivian to get a job on the resort islands, they must demonstrate tolerance for all types people. It’s also quite competitive to get a job on the islands due to the high pay, so no employee would risk their job with narrow-mindedness. The ones who want to work here want to be here. In fact, if you see a gay Maldivian, it will be on the resort islands.
Getting to the Maldives has never been easier thanks to new routes that connect from major cities in Asia and the Middle East. Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) recently launched four weekly non-stop flights to the Maldives aboard their award-winning A330-300, and visitors can arrive in less than four hours from Hong Kong. Visitors can also take a flight from Colombo, Sri Lanka with Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.com). Flights are only an hour and a half. For those who have never visited the Maldives, they’re in for a treat (and return visitors will applaud): Malé International Airport recently announced an upcoming, $450 million renovation. The new upgrade will enhance the facilities, build a new runway, and provide a better airport experience to be complete by 2017/2018.
In the Maldives, it’s all about the resorts and the exoticism, privilege, and luxury these resorts provide. The signature overwater bungalows are some of the largest in the world, and there are very few places on this planet you can walk directly to the ocean in less than ten seconds from your beach villa. This is luxury in itself; there’s no stairs, boardwalks, hotel elevators, or crowds of tourists standing between you and the delicious, sprawling sea. Considering the wealth of amenities every resort offers, and the intimate size of these resorts, visitors feel like they’re vacationing on their own private island—you truly don’t see many faces except when dining. Already fantasy playgrounds, several five-star resorts are getting even more unreal having recently unveiled major renovations and amped amenities that further enhance the Maldives experience.
Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (Rangali Island. Tel: 960-668-0629. www.conrad.com) was upgraded from a Hilton in 2009, which made the resort even more decadent. Upon arrival at the airport, the resort offers a private lounge where visitors are treated to a complimentary neck and shoulder massage, already inciting vacation mode. Conrad Maldives, under Hilton’s company umbrella, which celebrates a Diversity and Inclusion initiative, is perhaps the most recognized resort in the Maldives: it’s home to the world’s first underwater restaurant and first overwater infinity pool, both of which are so unique and internationally known they fuel bookings alone. The 150 rooms, suites, and villas are divided between two smaller islands connected by a 1,640-foot bridge, the perfect platform to watch tropical fish and manta rays swim underneath you.
The beach villas here are comfortably rustic with a massive, outdoor bathtub and separate rain shower, and an innovative en-suite atrium. At night, considering the low lights and virtually no air pollution, you feel like you can graze the Milky Way with your fingers. There are nine restaurants from which to choose, but the most buzzing is Ufaa by celebrity chef Jereme Leung. Opened September 2014, the outdoor restaurant right on the beach and directly under the stars offers a traditional “hot pot” menu (typically served over Chinese New Years), with local seafood like lobster, shrimp, and muscles so fresh you’ll think it was caught that same day (surprise…it was!). (Beach villas from $1,250).
Open only three years, Jumeirah Vittaveli (Bolifushi Island. Tel: 60-664-2020. www.jumeirah.com) has wooed affluent couples and families alike with its rustic resort and easy, 20-minute speedboat ride from Male International Airport. Guests are greeted at the dock by a parade of drummers, and service continues to be exceptional with the cheerful staff. With only 89 villas, the resort is intimate (stand in the middle and you can see both sides of the island), and feels like a true unspoiled island with vibrant and lush landscaping, canopy of palms, and pristine beaches.
The accommodations here are over the top: beach villas are mere steps from the crystal-clear waters and tout their own pools that span the entire length of the villa, but the seven new ocean suites are creme de la creme. These bi-level suites “float” over the sea with striking, contemporary design, completely removed from the main island and reachable only by boat (a quick, one-minute ride). Guests sprawl out in the outdoor terrace with glass-bottom floor, the pool deck with private (and deep) plunge pool, floor-to-ceiling, glass-walled bathrooms with patios and, best of all, the ocean as their backyard with plenty of coral for snorkeling. Jumeirah Vittaveli oozes with romance (they excel in underwater weddings) and is a terrific option for families (the resort touts one of the largest kids clubs in the destination). The cuisine is one of its most notable highlights thanks to newly appointed executive chef Benjamin Rendell, who has held stints at five-star hotel brands like Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La. (Beach villa with pool from $976).
Celebrities like Nicole Kidman, Gordon Ramsey, David Beckham, and Russell Crow have one thing in common: other than being household names in entertainment, they all vacation at One & Only Reethi Rah (Kaafu Atoll. Tel: 960-664-8800. www.oneandonlyresorts. com). It’s the poshest of all island resorts (even staff wear designer sunglasses), a magnet for famous guests, and the largest resort in the Maldives (the coastline is approximately three miles long) meaning there’s even more room for privacy. When not exploring the myriad attractions like an orchid house, eight pristine beaches, overwater infinity pool, artist studio that moonlights as a painting room for guests, or chef’s garden, guests indulge in ravishing amenities like the gorgeous outdoor spa and sunset-facing restaurants.
It’s no shocker many guests shack up in their villas, so outrageous they truly never leave. The cathedral-high ceilings and sliding-glass walls enhance the space of these five-star pads equipped with private, netted hammocks, generous outdoor decks, and bathrooms as large as a master bedroom. With the recent opening of One & Only Maldives’ new beach club, visitors actually have the option to interact and socialize, something rare for the islands. Somewhat reminiscent of South Beach, memories-generating Ocean Club is equipped with a live DJ (playing music both day and night), an outdoor bar that also offers soft serve, tennis courts, outdoor rock-climbing wall, ping pong, volleyball, plush cabanas, and plenty of watersports.
Almost half of One & Only Reethi Rah visitors are repeat, a true testament to the resort’s allure that features trails explored with villa bikes, five restaurants including Tapasake for fresh sushi, and spending indulgent hours at ESPA Spa, which provides an indoor and outdoor gym, treatments in individual cottages, a therapeutic water journey, and extensive fitness program in partnership with Clean & Lean Fitness. (Water villas from $2,110).
The first five-star resort to open in the Maldives in 2004, Huvafen Fushi (North Male Atoll. Tel: 960-6644-222. www.huvafenfushi.peraquum.com) is still one of the most luxurious resorts to date. The 44-room resort is naturally rustic and simple, with no-frill, and unique amenities that make it a favorite for high-profile guests. Huvafen Fushi is the only resort to offer a knackering, outdoor float station pool with all natural salts, reminiscent of the Dead Sea. The perfect addendum is gourmet ice cream in its dedicated hut before heading to the world’s first underwater spa, a future-forward oasis where glass walls reveal dozens of marine life and spectacular coral.
The resort also takes “wining and dining” to a whole new level with its new, subterranean wine cellar featuring 6,000 bottles of wine from all over the globe, and an on-site marine biologist is quick to entertain guests at Stingray beach, where stingrays visit daily for feeding. Here, the beach bungalow is the most popular room option. Each villa, just steps from the sea, boasts its own plunge pool, outdoor deck, and private concierge, but the outdoor bathrooms are guaranteed to blow your sandals off: the bathrooms are equipped with an additional pool, colorful, lush garden, thatch-roof cabana, rain shower, and stand-alone bathtub.
Unlike other resorts in the Maldives, Huvafen Fushi offers plenty to do at night. Couples head out for a romantic sunset cruise aboard the new, private dhoni, touring the islands and capturing the most beautiful selfie they’ll ever take. Back on property, the spa transforms into a night “spaquarium,” where visitors can see monstrous jackfish, moray eel, and fluorescent coral after sunset. The main pool has fiber lighting, setting an elegant mood for outdoor dining. For those who get island fever (however unlikely), Huvafen Fushi’s sister property Niyama Resort recently opened the world’s first underwater nightclub, Subsix. (Beach bungalow with pool from $1,275).
Day or night, the Maldives is unlike any other destination in the world. Travelers wake up before sunrise and fall asleep late under the glimmering stars to maximize their vacation time. Halfway across the world, the Maldives is a once-in-a-lifetime journey, and the setting is what beach lovers dream about, but a vacation here goes beyond five-star resorts and unforgettable pampering. From the moment your flight arrives and you see the slivers of white-sand atolls floating atop the ocean’s surface in the middle of nowhere, you realize how large and grand and beautiful the world is, and how mysterious and delicate and underappreciated nature has become.
The government and the resorts are now putting a priority on sustainable environmental practices considering it’s the natural allure that makes the Maldives so special, and most areas in the tourism zones are marine protected. The Maldives as a whole is just as fragile as its best attractions. Many experts believe the Maldives is sinking slowly into the sea due to global warming. If there’s any reason to go now, it’s not because of this conjecture, it’s because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.